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DesignThinking, Ethnography

Hello Soup!


“Hello!” we called out in Vietnamese biking through the countryside. Over and over again….shop owners would wave, children would giggle and shout back. And many would have a good belly laugh at the foreigners peddling through their town. As least that is what we thought. Turns out that we weren’t cheerfully greeting folks with “hello!”, we were screaming out “soup!”. Typed out in English the difference is so clear; now take a look in Vietnamese:

Chào = hello
Cháo = soup

A simple nuance in the stress of the word completely changes its meaning. And nuance is what makes ethnography so compelling and rich. Ethnography is where good designers and design thinkers kick off innovation projects. It is intensive and often takes several weeks to complete a cycle. As the ethnographer begins his/her work, often the observations and interviews seem more similar than different; however over time nuance become more and more pronounced. And a more complete understanding of the system emerges….as do innovation opportunities.

Putting together an innovation project plan, sponsor and project managers will often consider streamlining the ethnography/observation phase. “It seem so long! Do we really need 6 weeks for that? Can’t we do it 2 weeks?” It is certainly tempting, but my experience is that thoughtful ethnography yields the clearest design paths, and thoughtful ethnography takes time. So plan your time well…thoughtfully…and enjoy teasing out the nuance puzzles. It’s the difference between hello and soup.

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